For centuries, philosophers have been preoccupied by the question of what it is to be a woman. Differences between the sexes were first understood as natural, with women defined in opposition to men. Aristotle considered women to be ‘deformed males’; he claimed, ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior’. This finds a later echo in the Biblical story of God fashioning woman from the ribs of man.
For millennia, then, biological differences between men and women have been used to naturalise inequalities in social status; men are ‘by nature’ dominant, just as women are naturally nurturing. Rousseau argued that inequality in the state of nature explained contemporary differences between men and women. This led him to the view that boys and girls should be educated differently: ‘Give, without scruples, a woman’s education to women, see to it that they love the cares of their sex, that they possess modesty, that they know how to grow old in their menage and keep busy in their house.’ In the 20th century, anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss similarly argued that the position of women in society was down to the historical impact of biological differences between the sexes. Today these arguments persist, but they have been relocated from the body to the brain. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the conclusions remain the same: women’s brains make them more nurturing and better suited to caring roles.
Today, the view that sex differences can be located in biology rubs up against a more dominant narrative that gender is socially constructed, non-binary and fluid. Facebook famously offers over 50 gender options for people to choose from; students declare their preferred gender pronouns; and even very young children describe themselves as transgender. Yet there appears to be little that is liberatory about this apparent freedom from biology. Instead, new orthodoxies entrench conservative attitudes about the ‘correct’ behaviour and appearance for those who identify as boys or girls. It seems that we are no nearer to answering the question of what it is to be a woman.
The view that, for women, biology is destiny was first called into question by the Enlightenment philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, published in 1792, Wollstonecraft takes Rousseau to task. She criticises the way women of her day conducted themselves but, she contends, their attitudes and behaviour are not a product of their innate disposition. She argues that education, far from responding to pre-existing biological differences, actually helps create differences between the sexes. Women are not born as such inferior beings, Wollstonecraft suggests, but are brought up to become ‘more artificial, weak characters than they would otherwise have been’. Their education and upbringing prevent women from having ‘sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name virtue’. Wollstonecraft is clear that endeavouring to keep women ‘always in a state of childhood’ degrades both men and women. She proposes we ‘strengthen the female mind by enlarging it’, and only then will there ‘be an end to blind obedience’.
De Beauvoir suggests that females play an active part in constructing themselves as women. She criticises women who practice ‘bad faith’ and refuse to accept responsibility for their lives
Wollstonecraft does not argue that men and women are equal or that there are no differences between the sexes. Rather, she insists that the contemporary status of women is a result of the way women are treated: ‘Men have increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures.’ Similarly, she is scornful of the idea that women are naturally more gentle and nurturing than boys: ‘The doll never excites attention unless confinement allows her no alternative.’ Wollstonecraft argues that women are ‘made’ through the different and impoverished environment females are afforded, and this in turn has an impact upon their biology. ‘False notions of beauty and delicacy’, she writes, ‘stop the growth of their limbs and produce a sickly soreness’. Wollstonecraft poses a revolutionary question: how can women ‘attain the vigour necessary to enable them to throw off their factitious character’? It is only when women are freed from the social restraints placed upon them that both men and women alike will be able to realise their potential as rational beings.
Over 150 years later, the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir picked up and built on Wollstonecraft’s ideas. In tandem with her lifelong partner Jean Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir pioneered a new philosophy of existentialism. In her 1949 book, The Second Sex, de Beauvoir applies existentialist ideas to the question of what it is to be a woman. She mocks attempts to reduce women to their biology: ‘Woman? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: she is a womb, an ovary; she is a female – this word is sufficient to define her.’ And de Beauvoir agrees with Wollstonecraft that education and upbringing help render girls inferior by indoctrinating them into their future vocation as women.
De Beauvoir is, however, critical of ‘the philosophy of the Enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism’. She argues that this approach sees the word woman as having no specific content, and women as ‘merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman’. To de Beauvoir, differences between men and women are perhaps ‘superficial’ or ‘destined to disappear’, but ‘what is certain is that they do most obviously exist’. Her philosophical approach allows her neither biological nor purely environmental explanations for this conclusion.
The body, as a physical entity, fascinates the existentialist de Beauvoir. She asserts that ‘in girls, as in boys, the body is first of all the radiation of a subjectivity, the instrument that makes possible the comprehension of the world: it is through the eyes, the hands, that children apprehend the universe, and not through the sexual parts’. Her argument is that the existence of a female body precedes the essence of a woman, asserting, most famously, that ‘one is not born but rather becomes a woman’. This is not to suggest that women are simply a product of their circumstances. De Beauvoir argues instead that ‘every female human being is not necessarily a woman; to be so considered she must share in that mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity’. The crucial phrase here is ‘she must share’. De Beauvoir suggests that females play an active part in constructing themselves as women. She criticises women who practice ‘bad faith’ and refuse to accept responsibility for their lives.